Do we care?

Local activists push for better recognition for caregiving professions

|
()
Lil Milagro Martinez (left) wants all domestic workers to be treated with the same respect she afford to the nanny of her son.
PHOTO BY MIKE KOOZMIN

steve@sfbg.com

Teresa Molina faced abusive, belittling treatment on the job.

The 52-year-old immigrant from Sinaloa, Mexico, says she was paid $500 a month to provide 24-hour, live-in care to a girl in a wheelchair and her family. She wasn't allowed regular breaks. She couldn't eat what she wanted. Even her sleep was disrupted.

"I spoke up a couple times, but when I did, my employer told me I was dumb and good for nothing," Molina, speaking Spanish through a translator, told us. "She would ask my immigration status, and I said that was not important, but she used that as a threat."

Molina is a domestic worker — one of the only two professions (the other being farm work) exempt from federal labor standards.

Her experience, a common one among immigrant women in California, prompted Molina to get involved in last year's California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign, part of national effort that resulted in the first-ever protections being signed into law in New York in 2010.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the California version of the bill late on the night of Sept. 30, 2012, the deadline for signing legislation, citing the paternalistic concern that better pay and working conditions might translate into fewer jobs or fewer hours for domestic workers.

"I was offended by how he did it, in the middle of the night on the last day, and he basically trivialized it," Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who sponsored the measure, told us. "Here in California, it's a major workforce, but there's no rules and there's a documented history of abuses."

But if anything, Brown's veto has energized local activists, who say the battle for domestic worker rights is part of a much larger issue that women, children, immigrants, and their supporters are struggling against as they try to get society to value one of the most basic of social and economic functions: caring and caregiving.

Those in the caregiving professions are used to such defeats, but this one seems to be galvanizing and uniting several parallel movements — most of which have a strong presence here in the Bay Area — that want to apply human values and needs to an economic system that has never counted them.

It is, economists and policy experts say, a profoundly different way to measure economic output — and if the domestic workers and their allies succeed, it could have long-term implications for national, state, and local policy.

 

CARING DOESN'T COUNT

There are endless examples of how society undervalues caring and caregiving and other labor that has long been deemed "women's work." They range from nurses fighting for fair contracts to in-home support service workers fighting for their jobs. Many are jobs that have traditionally been done in the home — and in some cases, not counted at all as part of the Gross Domestic Product.

Social work, teaching, administrative support, caring for children or seniors, community organizing, and other jobs held predominantly by women and people of color are consistently among the lowest paid professions.

But the demand for those jobs is increasing — and the price of under-investing in education, caregiving, and child development is decreased productivity and increased crime and other costs for decades to come — so activists say they are critical to the nation's future.

"It's a different perspective. Caregiving isn't transactional the way we think about other jobs," said Alicia Garza, executive director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), which has joined with other organizations nationwide for a Caring Across Generations campaign. "We're a nation that has a growing aging population with no plan for how we're going to take care of these people."